by Ugochukwu Nnamdi Ukamba
On Sunday 19th March 2017, one Dr Allwell Orji ordered his driver to stop his vehicle on the popular third mainland bridge, Lagos, Nigeria, got out of the car and took a plunge into the lagoon. It happened so fast that neither the driver nor other road users saw it coming. Days later, his body was recovered. It was alleged he was suffering from a case of chronic depression.
As though his plunge was an eye-opener for persons seeking a way out of this tough existence, in the ensuing days there were several copycat attempts at suicide on that same bridge. One of the persons who tried to take the plunge was Titilayo Momoh -51 years old, a textile dealer who was deeply in debt having allegedly been duped of N18.7 million by a Bureau-de-Change operator sometime in 2015. To add to her woes, her shop was, thereafter, burgled by robbers who carted away her goods. Very sad and unexpected turn of events.
Fortunately [or unfortunately, as unfolding events would show], she was rescued [or prevented from so doing] by the Police. Upon her rescue, she was taken to the Commissioner of Police (“CP”) where she reportedly said, “I did not steal, I did not kill anybody. I only wanted to take my life. This Policeman (pointing at the CP) said I have committed a crime. Which crime? How is my attempt to kill myself anybody’s business? Is it not my life? Let me end it all.”
It would appear her rescue compounded her woes because, on the 24th of April, 2017, Mrs Momoh was charged before the Magistrate Court, Ebute-Meta for the offence of “attempted suicide” contrary to section 233 of the Criminal Law of Lagos State, 2015 which provides that “Any person who attempts to kill himself is guilty of a simple offence and the court shall make a hospitalization order.”
She pleaded not guilty to the offence and the court set her bail at N500,000.00 (Five Hundred Thousand Naira). For non-lawyers, it does not mean she has to pay N500,000.00 immediately or at all to be allowed on bail. It means, she has to find someone who will sign a bond with the State to guarantee that she will be available for her trial and where she fails to attend her trial, the person will forfeit the bond sum to the State.
The section of the law that she was charged under is similar to the provision of the Criminal Code Act, which provides that “any person who attempts to kill himself is guilty of a misdemeanour, and is liable to imprisonment for one year” (Section 327).
Why is the attempt to take one’s life still considered a crime in Nigeria (and some part of the world)? There are two background basis for this view. The first is from religious doctrines that espouses that only God has the right to decide when a person would die. The second is that criminalising attempted suicide formed part of the body of laws that we inherited from our colonial masters. For instance, in Great Britain, until 1961 when the Suicide Act was passed, attempted suicide was deemed to be equivalent to attempted murder and could be punished by hanging. Tell me about irony.
I believe that it is on the basis of the latter that we continue to view the attempts to take one’s life as a crime. Our Criminal Code Act has not undergone any major review in recent years. We still have some provisions therein that are not in consonance with present day realities.
What would make a person consider taking his/her life? Many people think that the act of suicide is “selfish” because it really devastates the victim’s family and other survivors. However, on the other side of the coin, others would argue that it is selfish for others to force someone to stay alive with their level of suffering. In my opinion, we need to interrogate further to get to the root of why a person would think that taking his/her life is a solution to solving all the person’s life problem. Unfortunately, criminalising attempted suicide is not one of the ways to get to the root cause.
It is often the case that when penal consequences are attached to a prohibited act it is done to deter the frequency of occurrence of such act. One is constrained to ask, who is criminalising attempted suicide intended to deter? Mrs Momoh who attempted to kill herself or other members of the society who, perhaps, are going through a similar situation as her and are considering to end their lives?
If it is Mrs Momoh, how does convicting her for attempted suicide help her already precarious situation? Rather than help, it worsens her situation because, in addition to her suicidal tendency, the label of “ex-convict” is added to her.
We should focus on creative ways of handling and managing persons who are going through severe depression which leads to suicidal thoughts. We need to shift our attitudes from viewing suicide (and attempted suicide) as wrongdoing or sin and recognise that majority of the individuals attempting suicide [or dying from suicide] are in a great deal of distress. We can focus on enacting Mental Health Bills to address this issue rather than criminalising it. Several countries including South Africa, India, Ireland, Britain and E.U countries have expunged attempted suicide from their Criminal Code.
It is instructive that the Lagos State Criminal Law, unlike the Criminal Code Act, does not attach penal consequences to the offence of attempted suicide rather it prescribes hospitalisation of the accused (or victim which I think is a better expression). While this is commendable, it is still an aberration because whether or not the accused (victim) is penalised by the State, the fact that it is still considered an offence cast a shadow of criminality on the accused (victim). In addition, one still wonders why, despite the absence of a penal consequence, the magistrate set the bail amount at N500,000.00 –an outrageous amount for an “offence” that is, upon conviction, punishable by hospitalisation.
On a final note, if you are, or know someone who is, thinking of “ending it all”, you can speak with friends and family, seek out the services of a professional or call the Nigeria Suicide Prevention Initiative on +234 806 210 6493 or +234 809 210 6493.
Please, pass this on. You may be saving a life.
Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija
Ugochukwu Nnamdi Ukamba is a Legal Practitioner based in Lagos and Senior Partner at THTS Practice, a commercial law firm based in Lagos, Nigeria. He tweets @NnamdiUkamba